Category: Criticism

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2012

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read (not necessarily published) in 2012. Click the title for links to full reviews, where applicable. You can see my top 5 fiction titles for the year here.

Quiet (978-0307352149)

Cover image for Quiet by Susan CainThis title is at the top of a number of booklists for 2012 with good reason. Bookish folks, myself included, related powerfully to Susan Cain’s passionate message about the undervaluation of introversion in Western culture. The book cuts a broad swath, from outlining the rise of the extrovert ideal, to the psychological roots of introversion, to the perception of introversion in other cultures, to tips on how introverts and extroverts can work better together. Cain strips away the cultural stigma attached to introversion and examines the unique and underutilized skills of the quiet folks. This title was incredibly well written and researched, and Cain’s voice is passionate and compelling. You can watch Cain’s TED Talk on the power of introverts here.

Categories: Psychology

Joseph Anton (978-0812992786)

Cover Image for Joseph Anton by Salman RushdieSalman Rushdie thinks of himself first and foremost as a writer, but for over a decade, his life was dominated by disparate public perceptions stemming from the aftermath of the fatwa in which Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence for the blasphemous contents of his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. Rushdie gives a compelling account of his struggles to hold on to his identity as a writer, and to continue to produce fiction under the incredibly trying circumstances of a protection. He filled many roles during this time, planning safe houses, engaging in free speech advocacy, lobbying the British government to intercede on his behalf, and struggling to secure a paperback edition of the book. I picked this book up because I admire Rushdie’s commitment to intellectual freedom, but I came away with much more respect for his integrity and determination as a writer, even as I felt I had seen the darkest and least flattering parts of the man.

Categories: Autobiography

The Portable Atheist (978-0306816086)

Cover Image for the Portable Atheist by Christopher HitchensStretching from Greek philosophy to contemporary humour and science writing, The Portable Atheist contains a broad selection of essays chronicling the evolution of atheist, agnostic and humanist thought in Western culture. The essays are selected and introduced by “New Atheist” writer Christopher Hitchens, but the pieces demonstrate that some of our currents ideas about atheism have very old roots indeed. This volume was slow, hefty reading, but extremely rewarding.

Categories: History, Philosophy

Elizabeth the Queen (978-0812979794)

Cover image for Elizabeth the Queen by  Sally Bedell SmithWhether you are a royalist, and abolitionist, or simply indifferent to the British royal family, Elizabeth Windsor has had a long and interesting life and reign, presiding over six decades of rapid change. Queen Elizabeth II is simultaneously one of the most public figures in the world, and yet intensely private, so it is fascinating to catch in glimpse into her world, particularly in a way that so humanizing. Sally Bedell Smith profiles the Queen with the same attention to detail she is known for in her previous works on the Kennedys and the Clintons. This title focuses on Elizabeth’s time as queen with little attention to her childhood, and the author is certainly friendly to her subject, but overall this was a well-written and informative read.

Categories: Biography

The Storytelling Animal (978-0547391403)

Cover Image for The Storytelling AnimalThe storytelling phenomenon appears across time and cultures, raising the questions of what purpose, if any, it serves in human evolution. Gottschall examines contexts in which our desire to impose narrative order on the world is useful (recognizing patterns) and detrimental (eyewitness testimony is unreliable due to the plasticity of memory). Dreams and daydreams, the pretend play of children, and the relationship between empathy and fiction are all examined in this brief and tantalizing introduction to the neuroscience behind our narrative impulses.

Categories: Literary Criticism, Science


The Storytelling Animal

Cover Image for The Storytelling Animalby Jonathan Gottschall

ISBN: 978-0547391403

“The riddle of fiction comes to this: Evolution is ruthlessly utilitarian. How has the seeming luxury of fiction not been eliminated from human life?”

For some people, to study literature at all is to pick it apart until the very magic of story is lost; it ruins the experience. For others, closer examination offers the opportunity to engage more deeply with the work. Jonathan Gottschall’s book The Storytelling Animal is decidedly for this second group. Gottschall, like Richard Dawkins in The Magic of Reality, argues that understanding the science behind a complex phenomenon makes it more beautiful and meaningful, rather than less. The Storytelling Animal  uses psychology, neuroscience and yes, storytelling, to examine the significance of narrative in human lives, and interrogates a number of possible theories as to why story, which is often described as frivolous or escapist, might have continued to exist across cultures and time.

Gottschall’s first task is defamiliarization; he strives to make the reader aware of the “weird and witchy” power story has over us all. This is a formidable challenge; much like telling someone not to think about purple elephants, it is almost impossible not to be transported by narrative, even while struggling to consciously examine it. Story is so natural to us that even very young children instinctively engage in creating narratives. Only after the reader has been asked to consider story from this unfamiliar vantage point does the author proceed to demonstrate the manifold ways in which story influences many aspects of our lives. Child’s play and dreams are only the most obvious; Gottschall marshals a range of studies to demonstrate that our everyday lives are just as plastic and prone to fictionalization. From memory to social media, we strive to impose narrative order on chaos. Moreover, fiction has the power to spill over into our lives and influence our actions and opinions. Fiction has the ability to take us unawares that persuasive non-fiction can only envy.

Gottschall’s work is on the short side (200 pages) given the amount of ground covered by the book, and the extensive bibliography that stands behind it (15 pages). The book moves rapidly from illustrating how the brain works when it encounters a story, to considering the role of story in learning, to discussing the significance of morality and fear in narrative. Gottschall has correlated existing material into a tantalizing and engaging read, but no new research is presented. This is a comprehensible look at the neuroscience related to our narrative impulses, but it is only the beginning of the story.